January 1788



A fleet of eleven ships sailed into Botany Bay on the eastern coast of Australia between 18 and 20 January 1788. Most of the 1,030 people on board were convicts - 548 men and 188 women who had been sentenced to transportation for various crimes committed in Britain. The British government had thought that it was undesirable and expensive to keep these people in British prisons, and in any case, it could find nowhere else to send them. Criminals previously sentenced to transportation had been sent to American colonies, but those colonies had recently achieved their independence and wanted no more. The convicts were therefore sent to Botany Bay, which was as far away from Britain as possible to sail. They were guarded by a detachment of marines, consisting of 211 officers and men. There was also a chaplain, a surveyor-general, a judge-advocate and several naval surgeons. There were twenty-seven wives of marines and civil officers, and thirty-seven children. The expedition was under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, R.N., who had been appointed governor of New South Wales. This was the eastern part of the Australian continent, the western part then being called New Holland. Practically nothing was known about either of them. Captain James Cook, R.N., had sailed along the eastern coastline in 1770, and had noted that it appeared to be only lightly inhabited by Aborigines. His botanist, Joseph Banks, had commented favourably on the native flora. However, the naval officers of the first fleet that arrived in January 1788 were not impressed with Botany Bay as an anchorage, nor with the potential of the land around it, and they decided to look elsewhere. Using Cook’s chart, Captain Phillip sailed northwards along the coast and found the entrance to Port Jackson, which Cook had not entered. He then established a settlement at Sydney Cove, six miles inside the harbour. The move from Botany Bay was completed by 26 January 1788. Captain Collins, judge-advocate, kept an account of the first few days in the history of the colony of New South Wales. He wrote:

In the evening of this day the whole of the party that came round in the Supply were assembled at the point where they had first landed in the morning, and on which a flag-staff had been purposely erected and an union jack displayed, when the marines fired several vollies; between which the governor and the officers who accompanied him drank the healths of his Majesty and the Royal Family, and success to the new colony. The day, which had been uncommonly fine, concluded with the safe arrival of the Sirius and the convoy from Botany Bay, - thus terminating the voyage with the same good fortune that had from its commencement been so conspicuously their friend and companion.

The disembarkation of the troops and convicts took place from the following day until the whole were landed. The confusion that ensued will not be wondered at, when it is considered that every man stepped from the boat literally into a wood. Parties of people were every where heard and seen variously employed - some in clearing ground for the different encampments; other in pitching tents; or bringing up such stores as were more immediately wanted; and the spot which had so lately been the abode of silence and tranquillity was now changed to that of noise, clamour, and confusion: but after a time order gradually prevailed every where. As the woods were opened and the ground cleared, the various encampments were extended, and all wore the appearance of regularity.

A portable canvas house, brought over for the governor, was erected on the East side of the cove (which was named Sydney, in compliment to the principal secretary of state for the home department,) where also a small body of convicts was put under tents. The detachment of marines was encamped at the head of the cove near the stream, and on the West side was placed the main body of the convicts. The woman did not disembark until the 6th of February; when, every person belonging to the settlement being landed, the numbers amounted to 1030 persons. The tents for the sick were placed on the West side, and it was observed with concern that their numbers were fast increasing. The scurvy, that had not appeared during the passage, now broke out, which, aided by a dysentery, began to fill the hospital, and several died. In addition to the medicines that were administered, every species of esculent plants that could be found in the country were procured for them; wild celery, spinach, and parsley, fortunately grew in abundance about the settlement; those who were in health, as well as the sick, were very glad to introduce them into their messes, and found them a pleasant as well as wholesome addition to the ration of salt provisions.

The public stock, consisting of one bull, four cows, one bull-calf, one stallion, three mares, and three colts (one of which was a stone-colt,) were landed on the East point of the cove, where they remained until they had cropped the little pasturage it afforded; and were then removed to a spot at the head of the adjoining cove, that was cleared for a small farm, intended to be placed under the direction of a person brought out by the governor.

Some ground having been prepared near his excellency’s house on the East side, the plants from Rio-de-Janeiro and the Cape of Good Hope were safely brought on shore in a few days; and we soon had the satisfaction of seeing the grape, the fig, the orange, the pear, and the apple, the delicious fruits of the Old, taking root and establishing themselves in our New World.

- D. Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales: with Remarks on the Dispositions, Customs, Manner, & c. of the Native Inhabitants of that Country, London, 1798, vol. I, pp. 6-7

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